St Mary, Lakenheath, Suffolk

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Lakenheath is a large village in the NW of Suffolk, between Ely and Thetford and only 10 miles from either. To the W is the fenland that runs into Cambridgeshire, and the Cut-off Channel, built in 1964 as part of the fen drainage system, runs alongside the B1112 that forms Lakenheath High Street. To the E was once Lakenheath Warren, set up by the prior of Ely in 1251 as a source of rabbits for the table — a practical solution to the exploitation of land that was unsuitable for crops or pasture. Over the centuries the land was over-grazed by the rabbits, and soil erosion became a problem. In the 1660s sand dunes spread over 1000 acres at Lakenheath warren. The site of the warren is now Lakenheath airfield, built for the RAF in 1941. In 1948 the Americans moved B-29 bombers in, and they took over the administration of the airfield in 1951. Today Lakenheath is home to the 48th Fighter Wing of the USAF, England's largest USAF operated fighter base.

St Mary's is a large, imposing flint and ironstone church with brick repairs and traces of lost mortar rendering, situated on the E side of the High Street and standing in a spacious churchyard. It consists of an aisled and clerestoried nave with five-bay arcades, an unaisled chancel and a W tower with a Hertfordshire spike. There is a two-storey western extension to the tower. This was built after the Reformation, with stone from the old church at Eriswell, as a schoolroom, and it was still used as the village school in the 19thc. It is also recorded that it was used as the manor office. The earliest work in the church is the chancel arch, of c.1130-50, and the W end of the chancel with the remains of 12thc. wall-arcading and a blocked window on the N wall. The chancel was remodelled in the 13thc. and given a N chapel (now removed and its arches to chancel and aisle blocked but still visible). A doorway pierced through the blocking has itself been blocked. The S chancel doorway also belongs to the 13thc. remodelling and the font, described by Pevsner as the finest 13thc. font in the county, also dates from this period. The chancel has been heightened with brick and ashlar and its present slate roof with tile cresting is 19thc. The nave arcades have octagonal piers and moulded capitals with chamfered arches. Pier 3 of the N nave arcade is a short stretch of walling with responds, indicating to Pevsner that this was the position of the 12thc. W end. E of this, the arcade is early 14thc., and to the W it is mid-14thc. with slimmer piers. The S arcade is uniformly mid-14thc. The aisle windows are likewise reticulated on the N (c.1320) and Perpendicular on the S. Both lateral nave doorways have porches; the N Perpendicular and the S rebuilt in the 19thc. There is also a fine 14thc. W doorway with continuously moulded orders, now inside the western extension. The nave is much taller than the chancel and has a fine 15thc. angel roof with alternating hammerbeam and tie beam trusses. Its clerestory and battlements are Perpendicular. The tower is early 13thc. in its lower parts, late 13thc. at the bell-stage and Perpendicular at the parapet, which has battlements and a chimera. The lead spike relates more to churches in Cambridgeshire than Suffolk. Romanesque work recorded here comprises the chancel arch, the remains of the wall-arcade in the chancel N wall and a section of string course re-set in the N chancel wall.


Lakenheath was held as a manor by St Aethelthryth (Ely Priory) before and after the Conquest. In 1086 the manor had three carucates of ploughland, meadow for five head of cattle, 17 pigs and 100 sheep, a hall and a church with 60 acres of land. A smaller holding in Lakenheath was Richard fitzGilbert's (one carucate). Richard's descendants were the Clares, Earls of Gloucester from 1217. In 1201 King John granted a market here to the prior and monks of Ely, but in the following year an inquest decided that it was damaging to the market at Bury St Edmunds. In 1250, Henry III granted a Thursday market and a fair to the Earl of Gloucester, to be held at the manor. In 1309 Edward II granted a Wednesday market and a fair to the prior and chapter of Ely, again at the manor. The setting up of Lakenheath warren by the prior of Ely in 1251 has been noted above.

Benefice of Brandon and Santon Downham with Elveden and Lakenheath.


Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches

Chancel arch

Round headed, three orders to W, two to E.

First order (shared)

Applied half-columns on roll-hollow bases supporting capitals with square neckings. The N capital is multi-scalloped with three large scallops in the centre of the main face and smaller ones to either side. The shields are bounded by a ridge at their lower borders, and the cones are convex. The side faces are irregular trefoil scallops, again with the ridge around the lower edge of the shields. There is an inserted repair at the SE angle of the capital. The S capital is a cushion with keels at the angles, flanked by broad flutes following the line of the bell. Both have chamfered imposts with an angle roll between face and chamfer, and a thin roll and then a fat one below the angle on the chamfer. The arch has a fat soffit roll and an angle roll towards the W only.

Second order, E face

Plain square section jambs, no capitals, imposts as the First order and a plain square arch.

Second order, W face

Engaged coursed nook-shafts on bases as first order. The N capital has the form of an irregular multi-scallop at the top, but partway down the bell, the cones are overlapped by a second, cushion-capital-like bell, its surface articulated with vertical fluting. The S capital is a plain scallop with three scallops on the N face and two on the W. Neckings and imposts are as the first order. The arch has an angle roll.

Third order, W face

Engaged coursed nook-shafts, thinner than those of the second order. Bases, neckings and imposts are as the second order. The N capital is a simple volute and most of its impost is replaced; the S as double scallop with the shields grooved around their lower edges. Both the S capital and its impost appear to be replacements. The arch has an angle roll, but a section of this on the N side just above the springing has been replaced with square blocks.

Interior Decoration

Blind arcades

N chancel wall

A single shaft and capital with two voussoirs and part of a third forming the start of an arch. The shaft is an en-delit cylinder applied to the wall, and it stands on an attic base, and this on a square plinth block that stands on a section of stylobate projecting from the bottom of the wall. The capital is a simple cushion with keeled angles and a square necking and the impost above it is hollow chamfered with an angle roll between the chamfer and the tall face. The arch has an angle roll.

String courses

Section of string course re-set in N chancel wall

It is chamfered with a row of deeply-cut sawtooth on the face and another on the chamfer.

h. of section 0.09 m
l. of section 0.44 m


The chancel arch capitals are relatively simple types, but suggest connections with Ely cathedral. The volute capital is of the Ely transept type; fluted bells are found at Ely in the nave clerestory and the W transept, and the first order N capital at Lakenheath may be an inaccurate interpretation of the type of Ely trefoil found on the clerestory of the W transept.


  • G. Briscoe, A History of Lakenheath. 1951.
  • H. M. Cautley, Suffolk Churches and their Treasures. London 1937.
  • S. Jenkins, England's Thousand Best Churches. 1999.
  • D. P. Mortlock, The Popular Guide to Suffolk Churches: 1 W Suffolk. Cambridge 1988, 129-30.
  • J. T. Munday, Lakenheath Manor of Clare Fee 1086-1331. 1970
  • N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Suffolk. Harmondsworth 1961, rev. E. Radcliffe 1975, 319-21.
Exterior from SE.
Exterior from S.
Interior to E.
Interior to W.
N chancel wall and E aisle wall from NE.


Site Location
National Grid Reference
TL 714 827 
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Suffolk
now: Suffolk
medieval: North Elmham (c.950-1071), Thetford (1071-94), Norwich (from 1094)
now: St Edmundsbury and Ipswich
now: St Mary
medieval: not confirmed
Type of building/monument
Parish church  
Report authors
Ron Baxter